Call Answered: Keri Kelsey: Career Retrospective + Open Mic at the Gardenia
Variety is the spice of life and Keri Kelsey has done it all: traveled with the circus, rode a tiger bareback, assisted a juggler, worked as an on-the-spot radio news reporter and a literary agent, sung for the deaf, and swung 35 feet in the air from a float in the Rose Bowl Parade.
Keri hosts the weekly Open Mic at the Gardenia in L.A (Every Tuesday), which is the longest running open mic night, at the longest running supper club in the country.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Keri about her diverse career and what’s coming up on the horizon!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I don’t ever remember not wanting to be one. I guess it would have to be my parents. My mother was a singer and my stepfather was an organist/conductor. At church choir rehearsals they used to put me up in front of the audience at three to do my little repertoire. I loved it.
2. You host the weekly Open Mic at the Gardenia here in L.A, which is the longest running open mic night, as well as longest running supper club, in the country. How did you first start this gig? The girl who was originally hosting it had a sub one evening and he couldn’t stay the whole night so she asked me to take over for him at 11 o’clock.
I was going through a separation at the time and spending a lot of time by myself. I even caught myself talking to myself out loud in a parking lot and I thought “oh that’s not good.” The timing was perfect, I was so excited to have someone to talk to. I remember thinking “Well, somebody give me a microphone!” Their mistake. Lol.
3. With so many clubs opening and closing (at least here in NYC), what do you feel is Gardenia's secret to keeping their doors open? It’s the same here in Los Angeles. They open and close quickly and it seems fewer and fewer are even opening. I think it’s a combination of a few things. The owners were very dedicated to keeping it open and were able to do that even during slower times because they were very smart businessmen. One of the owners, Tom Rolla, who we lost recently, had been a dancer choreographer so the club was really his passion. He wanted to be able to give performers a place to perform. He also loved being there and seeing shows.
Our current manager, Nichole Rice, has taken over and is doing an amazing job. She is so smart and practically runs the place by herself. She’s doing a great job with booking. She and I are a real team on Tuesdays. She helps me out in so many ways and really takes care of everyone that comes, we like to refer to them as the family. Not sure what I would do without her.
4. What is one or two of the funniest things to happen to you during one of the Open Mics? That’s a great question! We were just talking about this the other night at the Open Mic. We’ve had so many interesting moments. One night I announced a singer and he walked up to the front and right out the front door without saying a word to me. I thought he was going to get his music and I kept talking for about five minutes before I realized he wasn’t coming back.
One of the funniest things happened before I even walked in the door. I was walking up to the back door and almost stopped in my tracks because I saw two people off to the side. They were engaged in a certain act. I didn’t know what to do and my first instinct was to say “Hi!” So I did, and start banging on the door for somebody to let me in. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t bother them at all. They just kept right on going. I just kept staring at the door. I have no idea why I felt the need to say hi. I guess it was my Southern upbringing. When I got in I told Nichole and she marched outside and told them this was not the time or place to be doing that and the guy ended up apologizing to her. That’s the difference between us and why we make such a good team because I had practically apologized to them. Lol.
We also had what we like to call an interpretive dancer. Lol. She came in just like a character Molly Shannon would do on Saturday Night Live and started doing this weird dance at the front of the room and kicking her leg way up in the air and Nichole told her she needed to stop and that she was going to hurt somebody. Then she finally moved up to the piano for one guy’s song and danced the entire way through it. I thought they were together so I didn’t say anything to her. I found out later that he had no idea who she was. I felt so bad he had to do his whole song with this woman doing this very unusual dance next to the piano.
Definitely the most touching moment was a proposal. This couple met at the Open Mic so it seemed natural that he would propose to her there and now they have a baby. I’m sure you probably know them but I’m not sure if they ever shared the moment publicly so I don’t want to mention their names. It was such a beautiful moment to share.
5. Who do you still hope to book for the open mic that you have not been able to? It’s L.A., so it’s really fun when people like Molly Ringwald pop in along with our regular celebrities but the people I enjoy the most are the doctors and lawyers that get to be a singer for one night. We’ve been lucky to have Andrea Marcovicci come by and try out some songs before her shows and one of my mentors, Julie Wilson, came by many times and just loved the night.
I guess if I had to pick, I’m going to go big and say Cher or Burt Bacharach, Lol. I love songwriters. One of our pianists is his musical director so maybe that’s a possibility. I hope so!
6. In addition to comedy, you are also a singer, often accompanied by music director Todd Schroeder. How did you two come to work together? Todd was my business partner for a class that we developed. He used to play the Open Mic when I first started going. We just had a real chemistry professionally. A friend starting asking me to guest in her shows and he was playing. Right when I started working with him I realized we spoke the same language. Todd helped me a great deal when I took over the Open Mic and would play many times. He also told me I should call it Open Mic so people knew what it was and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that because people now know what kind of night it is so if that’s what they want to do they can find us.
After years of sitting and listening to new singers just starting out I realized there were a few basic techniques I could share that would be helpful. I asked Todd to teach with me. I knew what an amazing teacher he was because he had been musical director on most of my shows. We also did a show together called Mr. And Misscommunication. We developed a class called “The Complete Cabaret Workshop.”
7. What is it about Todd's artistic vision that you feel lines up with your own so well? You know how sometimes you meet people with whom you just have an instant shorthand? It was like that with Todd. We have the same sense of humor and his style of playing really spoke to me.
At the beginning he led me to the interpretation of the song that he wanted with his playing and then as I learned more and had my own interpretation I realized how brilliantly he follows. It’s almost like he knows what you’re going to do before you do it. He almost breathes at the same time you do. Todd started traveling a lot and working with many people so I started offering some master classes with people like Jane Monheit, Josh Nelson and Michael Orland, from American Idol. Since then I’ve worked with many great pianists. We recently started working together again on some music and it’s really fun to be working together again.
8. What are some upcoming projects you can tell us about? I’m starting a new monthly gig at a really fun place here called Viva Cantina. It’s right next to an equestrian center so there are real live cowboys there. When I first walked in I thought it was Halloween and then I realized it was August. This will be a duo with just guitar, which is a little more challenging, but it will be exciting doing something I’m not used to. I’m still going to have guest singers. It won’t be an Open Mic, but people will sit in. I really like having people sing and it’s certainly what I’m used to. Lol. I’m also starting to record my first CD. I’m very excited about it. I’m working with a great producer, Dori Amarilio, whom also happens to be an amazing guitar player. I’ve also begun working with a Beverly Hills doctor here who has developed a skin care line. I’ve been consulting on the product and he wants me to represent it if they take it to QVC. It’s been really fun working on something in a completely different field but one that I’m still passionate about.
9. I love the wide variety of jobs you have had throughout your life including traveling with the circus, riding a tiger bareback, assisting a juggler, working as an on-the-spot radio news reporter and a literary agent, signing for the deaf, and swinging 35 feet in the air from a float in the Rose Bowl Parade. Which was more terrifying, riding a tiger bareback or as someone who is afraid of heights, swinging 35 feet in the air from a float at the Rose Bowl? It looks so funny to see all of that in writing. Definitely hanging from a float at the Rose Bowl. Riding a tiger I loved every second of, but it was a little scary. The float happened because my ex-husband was stunt coordinating another float. He said to me the Baskin Robbins people asked me if I could help them find somebody to hang from a dinosaur mouth, it pays $1,000. I said “I’ll do it.”
Lol. I learned that day that money is a great cure for fear of heights. There was a comforter I had been eyeing for a long time and I realized if I hung from the dinosaur mouth I could buy it. And I did! The person in charge of the float told me to scream and looked scared. I said, “no problem.”
10. I also love that one reviewer wrote you are the definition of glamour. What are some of your secrets to keep yourself looking good and feeling fabulous? That was so thrilling to have somebody say that. First is always smile, it lifts everything up. Lol. But my best beauty tip is a good blow dry! It seriously makes me feel so good. Most of the beauty treatments we do are painful -- waxing, and even nails are painful now with gel polish needing to be scraped off -- but having your hair blown dry feels so good. I remember going through a real depression and I thought about how good I felt when I got my hair cut. I knew I couldn’t get it cut every week but I thought they can blow it dry. It was way before Dry Bar and those places that just blow your hair dry. I wish I had started that business. I thought maybe if I feel good on the outside I can start from the outside in then I’ll start to feel good on the inside.
More on Keri:
Keri Kelsey is a woman with, to put it mildly, an eclectic background. Her life experiences are as diverse as traveling with the circus, riding a tiger bareback, assisting a juggler, working as an on-the-spot radio news reporter and a literary agent, signing for the deaf, and swinging 35 feet in the air from a float in the Rose Bowl Parade! (not easy for someone afraid of heights...she found, however, that fear is calmed somewhat when a paycheck is involved...)
Keri draws inspiration from all these experiences for her personal and compelling performances, while earning a reputation for being, as one reviewer recently put it, "the definition of glamour". She counts among her musical inspirations Julie Wilson, Ann Hampton Calloway and Nancy Wilson.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Keri Kelsey received her BA in Theater Arts from Florida Southern College. She then moved to New York City where she acted and also did various intriguing jobs, even working for the man who designed the Barbie. But most importantly, she took in as much as she could of the incredible city where she had always dreamed of living. Just before she was set to move back home she decided it was time to run away with the circus, (it may have had something to do with the daring young man on the flying trapeze - in tights!) She married him and joined The Big Apple Circus. After trying out the trapeze and discovering she had limited athletic ability, (in addition to the acrophobia,) she started selling popcorn.
With the birth of their son Alex, a house without wheels came calling, and it was off to Los Angeles where her husband began doing stunts in movies. After a stint as a literary agent, Keri separated from her husband and knew it was time to get back to what she loved: music. Performances at the Cinegrill, Masquers, The Plush Room and The Gardenia followed, as did a return to New York, to perform at Tavern On The Green and Danny’s Skylight Lounge. She currently co-hosts the open mic at The Gardenia on alternate Tuesdays.